"That fecker, again?!" - A Dubliner's perspective of going up against Lee Keegan
Does that lad ever take a moment for himself?!
Lee Keegan is an inter-county player no more, and both attackers and defenders across the country can breathe easier for a while.
For a dozen years this lad was wound up and let spin until the rest of us got dizzy watching. As a Dublin supporter (off-duty, of course) here was the one lad you knew would cause your side trouble in the big games.
Mayo and Dublin was the rivalry from 2012 to 2021. There was a whole cost of characters, cameos and sub-plots but if were making a poster to sell the movie, it would be Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly front and centre.
Even though Connolly was far beyond the fringes when Dublin did them in 2020, and Mayo avenged the final loss in 2021's semis, these were the two lads we will always recall when we look back on brilliant but lop-sided struggle.
From a Dublin perspective, there was respect for the likes of David Clarke, Keith Higgins, the O'Shea and the O'Connor brothers. The only lad you'd really fear, though, was Keegan.
The All Star
Like Brian Fenton, who was often needed to go beyond his usual high levels when Mayo were purring, Lee Keegan never played minor.
He was included in Mayo U21 panels and, after nudging into the senior side in 2011, burst into the wider consciousness in 2012. He was named All Star for the right half-back spot after his first two full seasons and, by that stage, we knew all about him.
Another All Star was bagged in 2015 but Dublin fans will, if they allow themselves to admit it, still get a chill down their spine when they go back to those two incredible, gripping All-Ireland finals of 2016.
In the first game, Keegan frustrated the holy hell out of Diarmuid Connolly. He got few clean strikes away and ended with only 0-1 after the mother and father of all houndings. Not only was the Westport clubman nullifying the Dubs' attacking savant, he was marauding up the pitch and daring Connolly to stay put and watch it happen.
Mayo fans will know all about each and every close call, over the decades, but they had Dublin on the ropes in that game and allowed them to make the final bell when Cillian O'Connor missed a late kick to win it.
In a similarly breathless replay, two weeks later, Dublin and Mayo traded big blows and, on 17 minutes, the game was nicely poised. Ger Canning takes up the commentary:
CANNING: Mayo, as you know, hoping to win Sam for the first time in 65 years. Aidan O'Shea, hoping to get his hands on the trophy, later on. He's done well against Cian O'Sullivan... he's laid it off here... Keegan... GOAL! LEE KEEGAN!
I can tell you exactly where I was when that goal went in, and sent half of Croke Park wild.
Working with two SportsJOE colleagues in our offices, I darted to the loo when Dean Rock lined up a free that would make it 0-6 to 0-4. I was walking back to my desk when I heard from Canning's voice that something was afoot.
I came in view of the television in time to see Keegan receive O'Shea's hand-pass on the charge. The lad knew exactly what he wanted to do and did not hesitate. Stephen Cluxton had no chance.
That fecker, again. Game on, again.
The dip, and the road back
In 2017, Lee Keegan was tasked with taking Ciarán Kilkenny out of the game, as Dublin and Mayo reached another final.
Kilkenny had been practically untouchable all championship as he moved serenely between the lines and set the tempo for Jim Gavin's side. In the final, though, Kilkenny was a non-factor. He was limited to 20 possessions, had one assist and was kept scoreless.
That match came down to Diarmuid Connolly, on as a sub, was fouled out near the sideline and Dean Rock lined up what would be the match-winning kick. Keegan, in a moment that was pored over in the days that followed, lost the head and tossed his GPS tracker at Rock as he stepped up to slot over the winning free.
If Dublin, and their fans, had enough of him, Keegan had it up to his eyeballs with Dublin.
Mayo missed out on the big dance in 2018, and 2019 felt like it could be the end for their team. Keegan, this time, had Con O'Callaghan to deal with but the young bull ran roughshod, scoring 2-0 in the process.
Keegan, around this time, was undergoing surgeries (four in three years) and had lost his zip. He was human. He was fallible.
He wasn't having it.
A home gym was built during the Covid lockdown and he steeled himself for a few more goes around the block.
There was another final reached in 2020 but Dublin won another day. He did not bother to hide his tears as Dublin celebrated No.30 in a stadium with locked gates and no fans present.
In 2021, he was one of the big wrecking balls as Dublin, after eight All-Ireland triumphs in 11 years, were busted wide open. It took extra time to shake the loose but Dublin, for once, could not find that extra gear.
As we now know, that second big semi-final win over Dublin would once again be met with disappointment as an Ulster team trumped them in the final.
The landscape is different, as we look ahead to the 2023 championship. Kerry are the top dogs now and both Dublin and Mayo will be full of new faces as they try to hit upon the formula, and form, for a run on Croker.
The time that we so recently knew is now at an end.
A time when Dublin feared no task or team and when only one man had them truly worried.
That man was Lee Keegan.
- 'Indestructible' Keegan bows out after 11 swashbuckling years for Mayo
- "I was like 'Jesus, I've no hope of getting into the team now.'" - 2017 A vs B game was Keegan to an absolute tee
- Lee Keegan: The ultimate quiz of a Mayo GAA legend